When Joel Swazo, 22, thinks about the last three years of his life, the words that come up are “traumatic and heartbreaking.” Like more than 1,300 foster youth ages 18-21 in Los Angeles County, Joel was placed in a Supervised Independent Living Placement (SILP). The program provided him $1,129 a month to help cover rent, transportation, utilization and all other expenses.
But, in L.A.’s tight housing market, that amount was never enough. A teacher at his high school, Hollywood High, let him share her house with him. He used his monthly foster care payment to pay rent, but as it so often happens for young people like Joel, “the situation changed.” When she moved to New York, Joel was on his own, paying friends, and for a time his stepfather, to let him sleep on couches. But there were only so many friends and so many couches. “Emotionally it was very traumatic and heartbreaking because you think that you can stay,” he says.
John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) stepped in to help and successfully advocated for the adoption of the SILP Housing Supplement in the 2023-24 California State budget. This new policy would provide an additional payment for foster youth placed in a SILP based on the cost of housing in the country where they live and bring stability to young people like Joel.
Unfortunately, SILP supplement has been proposed for elimination in the 2024-25 California State Budget.
Joel knows too well what that will mean for young people in foster care, “Towards the end of getting the SILP, I was living in motels and stuff,” he says. “But if the thousand dollars was used up for two weeks of the month, there’s two weeks where I would either have to try to stay at someone’s house or just be by myself on the streets.”
JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley is hopeful that the SILP Housing Supplement will be protected in the state budget: “The State of California established this program to end the shameful practice of youth in foster care experiencing homelessness. Since the adoption of the policy, the housing affordability crisis in California has not gotten better, it’s only gotten worse. We need this policy to safely house young people and give them a chance.”
Joel knows first-hand what will happen if the SILP Supplement is not preserved.
“Being on the streets is difficult. It was really difficult,” he says. “I was sleep-deprived. I was still trying to get money to have food and be able to just take a shower, be able to cook a meal, and wash my clothes. I would be wearing the same outfit for a couple of days, maybe a week.”
Throughout his time being homeless and working intermittently at fast food restaurants like Shake Shack and Chipotle, Joel managed to remain enrolled in LA City College. For extra cash, he started an Instagram page where he sells high-end sneakers, something he still does to this day.
“Having to think about going to work, going to school, completing your assignments, and also worrying about where you’re going to live was super difficult,” he says. Like so many other foster youth who find themselves alone, trying to become adults, even bouts of homelessness couldn’t shake him from his dream of forging a career in graphic design.
For Housing and Health Director Simone Tureck Lee, that dedication is inspiring, “Foster youth are fighting for a better life. They are in foster care through no fault of their own and are doing everything they can to improve their circumstances. The SILP Housing Supplement is a practical way to keep them safely housed and on track.”
Tureck Lee has been leading a statewide coalition of organizations advocating to maintain the SILP Housing Supplement in the state budget. The coalition has sent a letter to the Newsom Administration requesting the preservation of the program. The coalition meets every other week to organize activities, which include meeting with legislators, testifying at budget hearings, conducting press outreach and raising awareness through social media and other outlets. To learn more or attend the next coalition meeting, follow this link.
For Joel, the policy change was too late, but he believes that it could have made a real difference. “A bigger SILP payment definitely would’ve changed things for me,” he says. “That extra money could have given me a couple more weeks in the hotel or the motel where I was staying. Or even just being able to get my own apartment. I wouldn’t have to have been homeless.”